The likeliest outcome is for E.U. leaders to delay the departure until Jan. 31, the day requested by Johnson in an unsigned letter he sent under protest on Saturday. British lawmakers forced him to ask for a delay rather than to lead Britain out of the European Union in October without any deal in place to buffer the way.
“I’m recommending the EU27 accept the UK request for an extension,” European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted Wednesday, saying he had spoken to Johnson by phone to explain his reasoning. Under the likeliest terms of an extension, Britain could leave earlier than the end of January if it approves the withdrawal deal before that and says it wants to go.
But it was not fully resolved whether E.U. leaders would go along with Tusk. France, in particular, has been deeply skeptical about repeated delays to the departure, with President Emmanuel Macron questioning whether the bloc’s being flexible takes too much pressure off British lawmakers to act.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who has been an important voice in the Brexit discussions, said Wednesday that he would support the deadline extension to Jan. 31.
Johnson has floated the idea of holding a general election, but it remains unclear how that would fit into a Brexit delay, and for now, E.U. leaders aren’t showing much interest in factoring that into their decision.
E.U. ambassadors met Wednesday for a preliminary discussion about the delay request, and they will take further action on Friday. If the remaining 27 E.U. countries are comfortable with putting off Brexit until the end of January, they could agree to it on Friday without further discussion. Diplomats familiar with the discussions said that most countries supported a January delay but that France was still holding out, for now, for a briefer reprieve.
“We need clarity on the next steps and a political clarification to stop the toxic uncertainty that is hurting European citizens, millions of families and businesses,” French E.U. affairs minister Amélie de Montchalin told the French Parliament on Tuesday. “An extension is requested: What for? With what justifications? We know that time alone will not bring the solution, but a political decision. We cannot extend this situation indefinitely.”
But there was widespread expectation that a delay of some sort would be granted and that Britain will not crash out of the bloc next week.
Some British lawmakers told Johnson on Wednesday to get over it.
“Will my right honorable friend get over his disappointment and accept that October 31 is now Halloween and it is devoid of any symbolic or political content and will fade away into historical memory very rapidly?” asked Kenneth Clarke, a longtime Conservative lawmaker and senior member of the House of Commons.
There was little progress in London on Wednesday, as Johnson met with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn but failed to agree on a timetable to move the Brexit bill forward.
“Jeremy Corbyn reiterated Labour’s offer to the prime minister to agree [to] a reasonable timetable to debate, scrutinise and amend the withdrawal agreement bill, and restated that Labour will support a general election when the threat of a no-deal crash-out is off the table,” a Labour Party spokeswoman said in a statement.
Booth reported from London. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.